One of the strongest rallying cries in recent years of groups on the far right, like the English Defence League (EDL) and British National party (BNP), has been over what is now being called "Street Grooming." Last Friday a series of prosecutions relating to child sex abuse in Telford, all a result of an investigation under the name Operation Chalice by West Mercia Police and involving seven men and possibly as many as 100 girls came to conclusion. On Thursday the jury retired to consider the verdicts in the trial of nine men from Oxford in a case at the Old Bailey listing 66 offences and involving six girls. Thames Valley Police's Operation Bullfinch is still active and on Saturday an eleventh man was arrested; the list of girls involved is huge, and the stories heart rending. Other cases around the nation are under active investigation or proceeding to trial.
The cases mentioned here, and a wider group of similar investigations of "street grooming", involve men of Asian and Muslim background. The cry of the Far Right has been to say this is Muslim crime, sanctioned by Islam as a part of jihad, holy war against the white English Christian community, especially young girls The popular narrative at that point dives back into the origins of Islam; the Prophet Muhammed's last wife Aisha was by some accounts six when she was betrothed and nine when the marriage was consumated. The line has developed that since Muslims are called to emulate the Prophet, they are all therefore paedophiles. It is repeated at demos on placards and in chants, on social media sites and in graffitti, and is a closed and proven case in the narrative of the far right.
The tie up emerged in 2004 during campaigning for local and European elections around the UK when a documentary based in Bradford and Keighley named "Edge of the City" looked at claims that British Asian men were grooming under-age white schoolgirls for sex. The BNP made gains on the back of the claims and the link has been continually made since. And sadly no effective counter-narrative has emerged until now.
The spate of cases now coming to court, and the inevitability that they will again be exploited by the far right, has finally led to a coalition emerging to challenge the lies being perpetuated around street grooming and importantly to work againist it. Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation(CAASE) represents a broad range of Muslim groups, national and local, and is led by Islamic Society of Britian with Shayke Ibrahim Mogra, deputy president of Muslim Council of Britain playing an active role. Joining them are Hope not Hate who have campaigned against the far right for many years, and whose intelligent community organising approach has been very effective in combatting both the electoral ambitions of the BNP and other far right parties, and the street based EDL. Recognising that the EDL feed off the extremist Islamic agenda frequently paraded by al-Muhajiroun's spins off groups like Muslims against Crusades, they have in recent years begun to challenge these groups and address issues that the far right build their suport around. Hence their leading role in this campaign.
CAASE was launched at an event in Bradford on Friday. Among those speaking was the mother of a victim of street grooming from Keighley, Angela Sinfield. Hope not Hate's director Nick Lowles wrote afterwards that:
Angela Sinfield's description of the abuse her daughter suffered and the impact that had on her and the rest of the family was one of the most emotional and haunting speeches I have ever heard. It really put the day into context and reminded us so vividly about why we were so keen to launch CASSE in the first place.
The intelligent and strategic approach to this campaign was well voiced by Julie Siddiqi, executive director of ISB, in a BBC article last week. She said:
".... it was time for some very straight talking about a crime in which men from Muslim backgrounds are being implicated."I am willing to go as far as to say there does seem to be a pattern emerging of people from the same background and we need to be open about that and do something about it," she said.
"It's certainly not Islam telling them to do this but I think Muslim groups need to be at the forefront of looking at this issue.
"The facts and figures need to be much better on this. At the moment it's very easy for someone to say to me - which they do - that actually most of the perpetrators of child abuse in this country are white males.
"But this particular behaviour and way of going about it does seem to be related to people of a certain background."
A significant contribution to the launch was made by Church of England Bishop of Bradford, Rt Rev Nick Baines. The Bradford Telgraph and Argus reported him as saying:
“I applaud this unprecedented meeting and commend the courage of the Muslim community in addressing this issue.
“They are taking a proactive stance and are willing to engage with such a difficult and sensitive subject rather than brushing it under the carpet.
“This is not a religious issue, but religious leaders have a responsibility and religious traditions have the resources to help tackle such issues, so I’m glad to offer a supportive role, along with that of the churches and the relevant specialist agencies.”
He wrote later on his blog:
"... This is a human problem and a male problem (principally). Yet, there is always a particular cultural context to every instance of such abuse. In West Yorkshire the pattern is broadly that online grooming is a white phenomenon, whilst street grooming is almost entirely the domain of Asian men.
My contribution was simply to commend the Asians and Muslims who have had the courage to grasp this difficult nettle. Demonstrating maturity and courage, bodies such as the Bradford Council for Mosques, the Bradford Muslim Women's Council and the Bradford Imams Forum have refused – against pressure from some who find it too hard to face the reality of such shameful criminality in their midst – to hide from their responsibility. When it comes to the particular forms of exploitation carried out by Asian men, then it is the Asian and Muslim communities that need to take the lead in addressing it.
This is not my line; rather, it is the line given to me by Asian Muslims. I will stand by them and support them, but they have to take the lead here. And they have recognised that if they don't shape how they handle this phenomenon, they will always be reacting defensively to the lead taken by those who wish to make political points out of the situation.
Yes, sexual grooming is not an 'Asian' issue; but, there is an Asian issue with grooming here in West Yorkshire and elsewhere. The particular must be addressed and not hidden behind the general. (Something the church knows a good deal about…)Facing this challenge here in West Yorkshire requires mature and confident leadership – and we are seeing this emerge. ..."
Gracious and important words from a church leader supporting the Muslim community as they look at this issue. We need to see a lot more instances like this.
Against the background of the regularly haunting news of fresh dimensions of the Saville-reated sexual abuse, and this weekend's news of the emergence of a historical abuse case involving a senior church of England cleric, it is patently foolish to exagerate the scale of abuse in the Asian or Muslim community. As Bishop Nick said, abuse is a human (and commonly male) issue, but it takes on various cultural patterns, and we each have a responsibility to tackle that part related to our own part of the community, and the patterns observed. And that is what is now happening, and that is what is so encouraging.
We can only hope that message is the one which ALL the media carry when the Oxford case reports this coming week. And after the Channel 4 documentary "The Hunt For Britain's Sex Gangs" involving the Telford case shows (23rd May, 9pm I understand). Whether the message that senior Muslim leaders are roundly condemning street grooming within their community gets through to the EDL or their allies is always going to be questionable.